ANKARA - President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday embarked on a two day visit to Russia’s increasingly close partner Turkey to launch the construction of its first nuclear power plant and coordinate policy on the war in Syria.

Putin was to hold an afternoon of talks with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the two strongmen leaders are joined on Wednesday by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a summit devoted to Syria.

Their meeting in Ankara opened with Putin and Erdogan, via video conference, launching construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power station in the Mediterranean Mersin region, a massive project that will come online in half a decade.

In a sign of the importance of the alliance, Putin’s visit to Turkey is his first trip abroad since he won a historic fourth presidential mandate in March 18 polls.

Putin and Erdogan - who have both led their post-imperial states out of economic crisis but also into a new era of confrontation with the West - have forged an increasingly close alliance in recent months.

The Russian leader was driven to the vast presidential palace surrounded by an escort of Turkish troops in ceremonial dress on horseback and was warmly greeted by Erdogan who was waiting in person at the gate. Their meeting comes as ties between Russia and the West are nosediving to post-Cold War lows after the March poisoning of Russian ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.

While EU powers have rushed to join Britain in condemning Russia and expelling diplomats over the attack on Skripal, Turkey has been much more circumspect. Erdogan, who in 2017 held eight face-to-face meetings with Putin and has already spoken to the Russian leader seven times by phone this year, has said that Ankara will not act against Moscow “based on an allegation”. In a move that has troubled Turkey’s NATO allies, Ankara has agreed to buy S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia.

But Ankara-Moscow relations were also tested by a severe crisis from November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian war plane over Syria, a confrontation both sides are trying to put behind each other.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday said he had agreed with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to speed up the delivery of S-400 air defence missile systems to Ankara, a purchase that has alarmed Turkey’s NATO partners. “We took the decision to speed up the timetable for the delivery of these highly effective Russian systems,” Putin told reporters after talks with Erdogan in the Turkish capital, referring to the S-400s but without giving a date. He said that acceleration in production of the weapons was being done at the “request of our Turkish partners and friends”. The deal has been valued at about $2 billion according to reports. Russian officials had said in December that the first deliveries of the S-400s were likely to begin at the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday expressed hope a meeting of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog would put a “full stop” to the issue of an ex-spy whose poisoning in Britain has been blamed on Moscow. “We hope that during those discussions a full stop will be placed on (the issue of) what happened” to former spy Sergei Skripal, Putin said in Ankara ahead of the meeting on Wednesday of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The OPCW said Russia had asked for the meeting but London has already accused Moscow of requesting the OPCW talks as a “diversionary tactic”.

Putin said he had been informed of comments earlier Tuesday by the British military facility analysing the nerve agent used to poison Skripal that it could not prove the substance was made in Russia.

“Concerning this, it is above all surprising the speed with which an anti-Russian campaign was begun,” commented Putin after talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He argued that experts have said that such nerve agents could have been made in some 20 countries.

 

 

 

 

The Akkuyu power station - a project costing over $20 billion (16 billion euros) and heavily disliked by environmentalists - was already launched once before in February 2015 but then put on hold due to the row over the downed Russian plane.

“The scale of this project is difficult to exaggerate,” Putin said at the ceremony. “This marks a new stage in the development of Turkey’s economy.” Erdogan declared: “We are witnessing a historic moment.”

The project was launched with Erdogan declaiming “in the name of God!” and work immediately began on the site, with the first concrete pouring as celebratory fireworks were let off.

Once completed the power station will provide 10 percent of the electricity needs of Turkey, which has few energy resources of its own. The first stage is due to come online in 2023, the 100th anniversary of modern Turkey’s founding, and be completed entirely in 2026.

Russia and Turkey are also building the TurkStream gas pipeline under the Black Sea that will allow Moscow to pump gas to Europe avoiding Ukraine and increase Turkey’s importance as a transit hub.

Half of the offshore section of the pipeline has already been installed.

“We are realising a number of strategic projects with the Russian Federation,” said Erdogan.

 

More evacuees leave Syria’s Ghouta

Buses carrying Syrian civilians and rebels began leaving the last opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta Tuesday on a second day of evacuations, as the regime eyed the total reconquest of the enclave.

Evacuations of Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from the former rebel bastion’s main town of Douma started Monday under a Russia-brokered deal.

Jaish al-Islam has not yet confirmed the accord, amid reports hardliners within the group were refusing to leave their positions.

The reported deal is the latest in a string of agreements that have seen tens of thousands of people - rebels and civilians - leave the onetime stronghold outside Damascus for the north of the country.

Russia-backed regime forces have retaken control of 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since February 18 through a combination of a deadly air and ground assault and evacuation deals.

The recapture of Eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebels during Syria’s seven-year civil war.

An AFP correspondent saw six buses carrying people leave the enclave on Tuesday via the regime-held Wafideen checkpoint.

A woman and small child peered out of a bus window, a teddy bear backpack lodged beside their seat. Cracks spread from a hole in the windscreen of one bus.

State news agency SANA said “a number of buses” carrying Jaish al-Islam fighters and their family members had exited through the checkpoint.

In previous evacuations, buses leaving Douma have gathered near Wafideen or on the side of the motorway outside Damascus, and waited for hours for others to join them before setting off as a full convoy to northern Syria.